May is Wildfire Awareness Month. This year, you don’t even need a calendar.

Just in recent weeks, wildfires have burned more than 250 acres in and around New Hampshire’s White Mountain National Forest and more than 7,000 acres in Nova Scotia, with smoke visible as far south as Boston. Last week, there were a couple of large fires in Piscataquis County, including a 40-acre blaze in Greenville.

With the devastating wildfires out West the last couple of years taking lives and destroying property over an enormous distance, it can seem like Maine is in line for a repeat of 1947, when fires destroyed 200,000 acres across our state, burning all the way to the Atlantic Ocean.

Fortunately, that’s very unlikely to happen, as the conditions here now won’t really allow for it.

On the other hand, as a result of climate change, we’re entering a period of great uncertainty. As temperatures rise, the seasonal cycle that keeps our forests safe is being disrupted, and it’s anybody’s guess on what exactly that means.

Out West, long periods of drought have left plenty of powerful fuel on the forest floor, ready to ignite from a campfire or lightning strike, then spread rapidly through dry woods.

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In Maine, long, snowy winters followed by humid summers tend to keep our hardwood-filled forests from going ablaze. When it does, it’s usually nothing that can’t be knocked down by the state’s well-trained, and well-coordinated, firefighters.

Along with the composition of the forest and our climate, Maine’s fire suppression capability, and improved forest management, keep little fires from turning into big ones. Put in place after the devastation of 1947, the system has made large wildfires nearly nonexistent in Maine.

All of those factors, too, make New England one of the safest places for wildfires. According to a recent analysis from The Washington Post, 16 percent of Americans live in an area with significant wildfire risk, mostly in the West and South. That number is expected to rise to 21 percent in the next 30 years as the climate warms.

In New England, however, the risk covers less than 1 percent of the population. In Maine, only a portion of Washington County has any significant risk at all, even when projected out to 2052.

But that doesn’t mean firefighters and forest managers here won’t be busy. In the coming years, Maine is going to see winters with less snow leading into earlier springs, as well as more times of drought in between rainstorms.

It’s going to leave the forests drier and more vulnerable to fire, particularly when we get periods of very low humidity followed by heavy winds, as happened in April and May. We’re expected to get more periods of that weather, too, as the climate changes.

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And if we know anything about the effects of climate change, it’s that we don’t know enough. Scientists correctly predicted the rising temperatures caused by carbon emissions, but have also underestimated just how unstable and intense the weather is becoming as a result.

In light of that development, it’s clear that Maine’s wildfire risk is going to get worse in the coming decades, and that we don’t know exactly what that’ll look like.

While Maine’s wildfire risk looks manageable now, there’s no guarantee it’ll stay that way.

 


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